PITTSBORO — The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), a farmer advocacy group based in Pittsboro, recently distributed $120,000 in pandemic assistance to North Carolina farmers and communities — a unique move in an industry that typically favors national food suppliers, according to organization representatives.
Donated funds were distributed in two rounds of grants. The COVID-19 Farmer Emergency Grant dispensed $66,000 to 132 North Carolina farmers. The other $55,000 was given to churches and community organizations as part of the Come to the Table COVID-19 Emergency grant.
RAFI-USA prioritized local farmers whose businesses were shut down or otherwise disrupted by the pandemic in determining beneficiaries of the COVID-19 Farmer Emergency Grant. The farmers, who came from 66 of North Carolina’s counties including Chatham, each received $500 to cover household expenses.
The Come to the Table program supports farmers by incentivizing the other half of local agriculture markets — community residents who purchase locally sourced food. The grants were given to churches and non-profits that run emergency food programs for use in purchasing from local farmers and locally-owned restaurants. The food programs largely serve children and seniors.
“The pandemic has hampered face-to-face delivery for our food program, while increasing the need in our community,” the Rev. David Joyner, of Red Oak United Methodist Church, said. “People who used to work at the local hotel and restaurants are now out of work. The Come to the Table COVID-19 Emergency grant helped us to purchase food from the farmers market to meet the increased need.”
Despite such relief efforts, and the critical role local farmers play in their communities’ economies, a cursory review of the industry paints a misleading picture of the local farmer’s fiscal security.
“Agriculture in North Carolina is still a booming business according to some numbers — the money it brings in per year,” said Tyler Whitley, RAFI-USA Program Manager of the Contract Agriculture Reform Program, “but how much reaches the pockets of farmers and how much is net profit gets smaller and smaller.”
Unless things change, he said, local farmers and their employees are working unsustainable jobs.
“Farmers are the lifeblood and drivers of the food industry,” Whitley said, “but the state of farming is tenuous, especially from the perspective of the farmer. They are not benefited by the supposed farmer-first legislation that often makes headlines and misrepresents the assistance local farmers receive.”
Whitley was referring to the billions of dollars in farm subsidies doled out to support American farms, most of which never gets passed the industry’s major players. Rather than assist local farms most in need, such payouts have “allowed big companies to amass control and it means tight margins and low profits for local farmers,” Whitley said.
The predicament for local farmers, which has developed over many years, has only been “exacerbated by COVID,” he said. The pandemic has put farmers in impossible dilemmas as they struggle to mollify health representatives and to protect their workers without halting operations.
According to Whitley, “Farming is not set up to be adaptable.”
This is especially evident at processing plants where workers must stand shoulder-to-shoulder all day. “How do you have them stand six feet apart with plexiglass dividers and still get the work done?” he said.
Farming’s dawdling rate of change in the face of a disease that spreads through close human contact unduly harms minority populations.
“Plant workers, who have been asked to continue their regular work practices, are often people of color and immigrants and they’re disproportionately affected,” Whitley said.
Of the COVID-19 Farmer Emergency Grant beneficiaries, 25% are farmers of color and 38% are women. And 47% constitute another vulnerable sector of the farming community — beginners, operating for less than 10 years.
“We have to work at how to make the food system work for farmers,” Whitley said, “and not just ‘agro-business’” — his term for the national food suppliers who monopolize the market and dictate industry trends.
Local farmers are caught in a tumult of bureaucracy and economic change that offers little hope of respite. Fortunately, Chatham County farmers benefit from their unique proximity to larger markets.
“Chatham is in a different position than some counties because of its location near the Triangle,” Whitley said. "Nearby cities offer higher-income buyers who value local meat and produce and can afford to buy it. Still, the ongoing pandemic portends a grave future for the local farming industry as a whole."
Edna Rodriguez, RAFI-USA Executive Director, is proud of what her organization has done to stymie the demise of local farms, but she is realistic in evaluating their condition.
“North Carolina farmers have been hit hard by impacts of the pandemic, losing markets and long-time customers as businesses shut down — even while food insecurity has increased across the state,” she said. “For farmers and non-farmers alike, sudden loss of income has meant choosing between buying groceries or paying the electric bill.”
Whitley is more optimistic, but it will take more than organizations like RAFI-USA to save local farms. The community must speak up, he said.
“There are ways to get involved in the larger conversation. Call your senators; reach out to your congressmen; tell them you support legislation that’s really for local farmers.”
According to its website, the mission of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA is “to cultivate markets, policies, and communities that sustain thriving, socially just, and environmentally sound family farms.” RAFI-USA, incorporated in 1990, works nationally and internationally, but focuses on North Carolina and the southeastern United States.